56. Pt 1 – Esquires and the allure of the single-pickup guitar.
THE more I looked at pictures of classic Esquires, Les Paul Juniors – and above all, the super-cool Gibson Firebird I – the more I found myself coming round to the idea there was definitely something irresistibly desirable about the elegant simplicity of a single-pickup guitar.
To be honest, I’ve had a bit of a thing about single-pickup guitars for some time, although until I built myself an Esquire just recently, I’d never actually owned one.
Part of the attraction is definitely their pure, minimal coolness. I’ve always had a soft spot for amplifiers sporting only the necessary minimum compliment of knobs – you can keep your modern, multi-channel Marshalls and Mesa-Boogies. Give me a good, old-fashioned Fender, Marshall or Vox amp with basic controls any day!
The highly subjective notion of cool aside though, there is a compelling, logical reason why single-pickup guitars really do sound better. It’s not mere mumbo jumbo. The science bears it out. Sort of.
It’s probably a slight oversimplification, but an electric guitar relies on the vibration of its steel strings to disrupt a magnetic field created by a coil of wire wrapped around a magnet. This generates a tiny electrical current, which goes off to the amplifier to be expanded into the noisy stuff we all know and love. Even my neighbours, late at night…honestly!
Almost all guitar pickups contain magnets, and all magnets exert a pull on anything made from steel – including the strings. If you set your pickups too close to the strings, the notes won’t ring cleanly because the magnets in the pickups are “grabbing” the steel strings and inhibiting their vibration. It’s a subtle phenomenon, but completely observable in high-output pickups with big, fat, powerful magnets.
By logical extension, it’s obvious that having just the one pickup under the strings means just one magnet and thus less magnetism killing those magic vibrations. So, all other things being equal, a single-pickup guitar wll be more resonant, since its strings will sustain longer and louder.
High time, I thought, to put all this science to the test.
I could have bought the stunning custom-colour Firebird I of my dreams (in theory at least, if I’d been prepared to sell the car and buy a pushbike). Sadly, this, the most basic iteration of the coolest-looking Gibson guitar of all time is a pretty rare bird. Translated into bank manager-speak, that equates to bloody expensive.
With no regular production Firebird I currently on the Gibson catalogue, the choice is between vintage pieces from the early 60s (cost: both arms and both legs); gorgeous one-offs, crafted by the Gibson Custom Shop (cost: almost as many limbs); or the rare – but reputedly rather good – Joe Bonamassa Signature Firebird I, issued in small numbers a couple of years ago under Gibson’s “budget” brand, Epiphone. Unlike all most all Epi ‘Birds, the JB Sig is very close to the classic 1960s Firebird. It even has through-neck construction and the Firebird’s distinctive straight-through Kluson banjo tuners, something even some Gibson Custom Shop Firebirds lack. On the negative side, the JB Sig is really hard to find and if you locate one, still costs a decent lump of change for what, at the end of the day, is still an Epiphone, not a Gibson.
So not a Firebird then… A single pickup Les Paul Junior? Well, maybe…my guitar wizard of a son, Owen, has a real beaut – a fearsomely roadworn genuine 1958-vintage Junior, which he loves. (There’s definitely something a bit unsettling about your son playing a guitar made in the year you were born!)
Once upon a time, for a brief period, I did actually have a double-cutaway Les Paul Special (the same thing, but with two pickups – No 13 in this blog.) But beautiful though it was, I never really got on with my old cherry-red Special.
So an Esquire it would be then…
The single-pickup Esquire was actually Leo Fender’s very first production Spanish (ie: non-lapsteel) guitar. The early Esquires appeared on the market in 1950, a few months ahead of his twin-pickup guitar – the one which would become the Telecaster. (Leo Fender initially christened his twin-pickup instrument the Broadcaster, but Gretsch had a drum kit called a Broadkaster and threatened to sue, forcing the name change.)
The advent of the Broadcaster/Telecaster prompted Fender to stop making Esquires later in 1950. Just 60 or so Esquires were built before production halted, though the single-pickup model was restored to the range in early 1951, mindful presumably, that some might players not be able to stump up the price of its twin-pickup brother. (In 1950, the Broadcaster/Telecaster retailed for $169.95, plus $39.95 for a hard case. The Esquire was $149.96 plus case – this at a time when $150 was rather more than two weeks’ wages for the average American.) Fender then built and sold Esquires solidly until 1969,
The Esquire shared the Tele’s spanky bridgeplate-mounted pickup (itself an evolved version of the unit Fender used in its lap-steel guitars in the 40s). Although it only had the one pickup, The Esquire still had a selector switch, in this case offering alternative tonalities rather than the Tele pickup selections. Traditionally, the middle position on an Esquire, gave you the same sound as a Tele on the bridge pickup, complete with the tone control. The back position bypassed the tone control, for a slightly brighter, louder sound. The front position routed the sound through a capacitor circuit, designed to give a dull, bassy sound. The idea, in the days before every band had a bass guitarist, was that the guitarist could help out with basslines, if required.
The original Esquire – give or take a few upgrades – was in constant production for the best part of 20 years, there are quite a lot of vintage Esquires out there. They are, however, sometimes hard to spot. If you look closely at the headstocks of famous musicians’ old Fenders, you will sometimes see that they started life as Esquires, only later acquiring a neck pickup and conventional switching. That’s probably the way the ever-practical Leo Fender intended it, since all Tele and Esquire bodies were identical and routed to accept two pickups.
Bruce Springsteen’s trademark guitar – the one on the iconic “Born to Run” album cover – is a case in point. It says “Esquire” on the headstock, but it has two pickups (though apparently the neck pickup isn’t connected). He bought the much-travelled 1950s guitar early in his career and has been quoted saying it’s a Tele with an Esquire neck, though experts who have examined it believe the neck and left the factory attached to the neck and the neck pickup was a later addition.
Jeff Beck played a much- battered 1954 Esquire throughout his pioneering spell with The Yardbirds. At one stage he traded it with pickup guru Seymour Duncan for humbucker-laden Tele, but later got it back – it currently resides in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.
In an interview, he recalled: “Fender had just started making Teles with rosewood necks, but I wanted one with an original maple neck. Thankfully, we’d gone on tour with The Walker Brothers, and John Maus [The Walker Brothers singer and guitarist] had a maple-neck Tele. He wanted about seventy-five pounds for it, which was only ten pounds cheaper than the new ones in the shops, but he wouldn’t budge. So I dug out the money, bought the guitar from him and I never regretted it. That maple-neck Esquire was on ‘I’m A Man,’ ‘Over Under Sideways Down’, ’Shapes Of Things’ and numerous others.”
Fender’s Far Eastern budget brand, Squier, has long been the company’s favourite channel for innovation – it was Squier, for instance, that first revived the long-discontinued Fender Bass VI baritone guitar. So it was no surprise that when the Esquire finally reappeared on the market in the 1980s, it bore the Squier name on the head. Those early born-again Esquires were made in Japan and now quite collectible in their own right. These days, Squier’s main manufacturing is in China and Indonesia – I think I’m right in saying the only Fender-branded Esquires in the current catalogue are the Mexican-made Brad Paisley Signature model and super-pricey one-offs from the Fender Custom Shop.
Thanks to Squier, however, you can currently buy a pretty decent Esquire as part of the Chinese Classic Vibe series. My dear old pal Howard Bills has one and months after buying it, is still singing its praises!
That might have been an option for me, but for the fact that since the first lockdown, I’ve been bitten by the guitar-building bug. I put together a rather pretty orange Gretsch lookalike in the spring of 2020, almost built an electric 12-string, loosely based on the classic 60s Fender Electric XII (now there’s a guitar I’d love to see revived by Squier!) and then made a really good 28” scale baritone guitar, based on a Telemaster body. (You can read about these instruments in blog posts 53, 54 and 55 above.)
And so I embarked an yet another adventure into the wonderful world of guitar-building.